North of the Tweed and South of the Potomac
A Tale of Two Roberts and Two Prayers That Changed
the Course of History
Richard G. Williams, Jr.
is the love of a land and its people, nationalism is the love of
Dr. Clyde Wilson
of the River Tweed, on the border with England, lies the hauntingly
beautiful land of Scotland. A land inhabited by a hardy breed of
Celts whose history is rich with romantic stories of chivalry, bravery
and heroic struggles for freedom – a land so full of legends and
myths, it’s sometimes difficult to separate true history from the
romanticized version. It is said that Scotland and its history are
sung more in ballad than any other place on the face of the earth.
One thing is certain. For hundreds of years, the Scots fought many
bloody and cruel wars with their neighbor to the South, England,
in Scotland’s struggle for independence. The love of liberty and
freedom is always just below the skin of a Scot who knows his history.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest about Scottish
history, thanks in large measure to Mel Gibson’s film, "Braveheart";
the fascinating story about Scottish warrior and hero, Sir William
1306, another Scottish warrior, and contemporary of William Wallace,
was involved in this epic struggle for Scotland’s liberty. This
warrior was not fighting for Scotland however, but for the English
in opposition against his native land. Tradition has it that shortly
after a particularly bloody battle, this warrior sat down to eat
and celebrate the victory with his English comrades. Robert the
Bruce was about to be faced with a decision that would alter the
course of history and that of his cherished Scotland.
torturous death of William Wallace, at the hands of King Edward
of England for his rebellion against the throne, tormented the mind
of Bruce, preventing him from enjoying the revelry of the victory.
Try as he might, his conscience would not let him forget Wallace’s
courage and steadfastness – two traits that Wallace kept to the
end. Traits he kept even as he was castrated and disemboweled alive,
the final act of death accomplished by the King’s executioner as
he reached into Wallace’s chest and tore out his still beating heart.
This grotesque and cruel execution took place before a jeering,
bloodthirsty mob of English peasants and nobles as one of Wallace’s
men held high his psalter. Prior to his execution, Wallace had made
the request to hold the psalter up in plain view so he could gaze
upon the instrument, bringing forth distracting memories of happier
times when he had serenaded his God with the Psalms of David as
he roamed Scotland’s green mountains and valleys. Robert had also
watched as Wallace's head was impaled on a spike high on London
Bridge and the four quarters of his body were taken to Newcastle,
Berwick, Perth, and Stirling to be put on display, lest any other
Scottish fool have some vain notion of "freedom." Yet,
even in death, William Wallace bedeviled the British and entreated
the Scots to fight for their homeland:
the flesh rotted away from the right arm and shoulder of the martyred,
and the sun-dried sinews tightened, the skeletal hand of Wallace
seemed to rise on the gibbet of Newcastle and point longingly to
the north. Wallace had been denied the opportunity to die on his
native soil…now, it seemed, his mortal remains were directing his
spirit remains back to Scotland."
ghostly scene, along with the image of Wallace’s bravery in the
midst of an unmerciful execution, was forever etched into Bruce’s
mind and served as a constant reminder not only of William Wallace’s
devotion to Scotland’s liberty, but of Bruce’s own reputation as
a traitor. The contrast haunted him. Bruce’s decision to fight for
the English was a pragmatic one. Though Bruce had once fought with
Wallace against the English, he became fearful after Scotland’s
defeat at Falkirk; fearful that Scotland’s quest for freedom was
hopeless and that any further struggle against the English Crown
was futile and would cost him his vast estate, if not his life.
Bruce bowed and submitted to Edward while his patriotic brethren
continued their resistance toward the English Throne and Bruce raised
his sword against his own kin. It was shortly after one of these
battles in which Robert the Bruce fought alongside the English,
assisting them as he slaughtered his fellow Scotsmen, that he sat
with the English noblemen to break bread and celebrate their victory
over the rebellious Scots.
had fought valiantly and proved his devotion to King Edward. He
thought he deserved the respect of the English lords, if not of
his own conscience. As Bruce sat down to eat, his unwashed hands
still stained with the blood of his own countrymen, he noticed snickers
among the English nobles. He overheard one of them whisper, "Look
at that Scotsman, who is eating his own blood!" The statement
pierced his heart like a hot dagger. He was simultaneously overwhelmed
with anger and shame his face first flushing with rage then
becoming ashen with self-realization. He was a Judas. Robert the
Bruce now had a decision to make. Would he accept the scorn and
mockery he deserved and go down in history as a traitor to his native
sod, or would he repent, risking his worldly wealth and position,
embrace honor and cast his lot with his kinsmen and their uncertain
the Atlantic and some 555 years later, a descendant of Robert the
Bruce paces the floor in an upstairs room of his home. His home
lay just South of the Potomac River in another land also steeped
in legend and history with gallant tales of bravery, chivalry and
a passionate love of liberty. This Robert is faced with a very similar
decision. Perhaps Robert E. Lee’s soul was haunted by the memory
of Bruce’s experience as he prayerfully struggles with the most
agonizing decision he will ever make. It’s the night of April the
nineteenth, 1861. Though Lee’s humility prevented him from speaking
publicly of his ancestry, he was well aware that he was "well
descended." Perhaps his mother had recounted the shame of Bruce’s
conduct to young Robert as she filled the role of an absent father.
No doubt he had read the story of Bruce’s conflict and Scotland’s
valiant struggle for liberty. It is also very likely that the young
Robert Lee was inspired by the heroic tales of Scotland’s best known
writer, Sir Walter Scott (17111832) and the medieval history
of Scott’s native land. Scott’s influence on Southerners is well
was due to this universal love of adventure – this hunger for an
active and stirring life, - that Sir Walter Scott enjoyed such extraordinary
popularity in the homes of the Southern people. There were few libraries
of importance among them that were lacking in those splendid volumes
in which he has drawn such romantic pictures…"
struggle that Robert E. Lee was faced with was the same one that
confronted Robert the Bruce. Their initial decisions and the ultimate
consequences were, however, very different. After Fort Sumter, Lincoln
had called upon the several states to provide seventy-five thousand
militia for ninety days service to put down the "rebellion."
Robert E. Lee’s native land, Virginia, answered with a call for
secession. The Old Dominion and cradle of liberty that had given
birth to the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick
Henry would not stand for such heavy-handed oppression. Figuratively
speaking, and in the collective memory of Virginians, her soil was
still moist with the blood of the British and, if necessary, in
the words of Jefferson, additional blood would be fitting:
tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood
of patriots and tyrants."
Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army, would now make the decision that would
alter the course of history and that of his beloved Virginia.
Second in importance only to Lee’s Christian faith, was his sense
of duty. To understand Lee’s struggle with the decision he would
have to make, one must understand the depth of his deliberate commitment
to this principle. It guided every decision he made – often at great
was this commitment and sacrifice more obvious than in its influence
on Lee as he struggled with the decision regarding the Union’s offer
as Commander of their Army. There could be no possible motive for
glory, fame, or riches, as Lee was fully aware of the likely outcome
of a struggle against the numerically superior North. He was also
aware that, contrary to the opinion of many, it would be a long
and bloody conflict. His only motive was what is my duty and,
as a Christian, what is the will of God?
E. Lee had given his whole life to the Union for which his father,
Henry Lee, the famous, "Lighthorse Harry Lee," had fought.
Robert was born at the Lee ancestral mansion, Stratford Hall, and
drew his first breath in the same room in which were born two signers
of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis
Lightfoot Lee. He had married Mary Custis, the daughter of George
Washington Parke Custis, who was the adopted grandson of George
Washington. Lee’s strong ties to the Union, and its founding, were
both by blood and by choice. The depth of Lee’s love for, and loyalty
to, the Union is something many students of Lee fail to give due
consideration. It makes his decision all the more remarkable. By
the age of 54, Colonel Robert E. Lee had fought with honor and distinction
in the Mexican War, served as Superintendent of West Point, quelled
a domestic insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and was well respected
as an army officer and engineer. Lee’s military prowess was well
known. General Winfield Scott credited the United States’ victory
over Mexico to the "skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert
E. Lee" and once referred to him as, "the greatest military genius
in America." Lee and General Scott enjoyed mutual respect and
Lincoln was no fool for offering the command of the Union forces
to Lee. Not only was it the prevailing opinion that Lee was the
most qualified to take command, Lincoln knew that if Lee accepted,
his stature alone might bring a quicker end to the conflict. The
offer would test Lee’s loyalties and lead to the spiritual struggle
of a lifetime. Lee’s mind was already made up when it came to fighting
against Virginia. He could not bring himself to raise his sword
against his kinfolk and ancient homeland. On April the 18th,
1861, after declining Lincoln’s offer, Lee went immediately to General
Scott’s office in Washington and informed him of his decision. Lee’s
friend and comrade in arms responded with a statement Lee had not
feared it would be so…If you purpose to resign, it is proper that
you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal."
now, Lee had remained hopeful he would not be forced to resign from
the Army he loved unless and until Virginia seceded and her citizens
affirmed the ordinance of secession. That hope was now dashed. Though
Lee had declined the offer of command, he would not be able to deny
service if he were called upon for duty once hostilities commenced.
Scott had made that painfully clear. At that point, Lee would have
to "…resign under orders. That was a disgrace to any soldier."
fact, Virginia did pass an ordinance of secession on the afternoon
of April 17th, but had kept the news secret until Virginia
militia units could seize Federal arsenals within it’s borders.
Lee read the headlines two days later on the morning of April 19th.
His heart sank. With great despair in his heart and a feeling of
impending doom in the air, Lee rode home to Arlington. He would
never again cross the Potomac as an officer in the United States
Army. After supper at Arlington that same evening, Lee walked slowly
up the stairs to his room knowing full well that he would be wrestling
with his God and his devotion to the Union for hours. Lee was facing
his Gethsemane. Downstairs, his wife
Mary heard him drop to his knees in prayer, then up on his feet
again to continue pacing back and forth as the momentous struggle
wore on – Oh, how he wished this cup might pass! What of his career?
What of his beloved Union? What of his family’s well being? What
of the future of his native sod, Virginia, in whose soil slept the
dust of his fathers?
doubt Robert E. Lee thought more than once that night of his father.
Light Horse Harry Lee was a favorite of General Washington and was
chosen by Congress to eulogize our first president. It was in his
eulogy of Washington that Lee’s father first coined the phrase,
"First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his
countrymen." It is likely that these were not the only words
of Lee’s father that came to his mind as he struggled that spring
evening. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Henry Lee had
stated, "Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable
the fate to which it may subject me." Those words burned into
his soul as the great warrior weighed his loyalties.
eminent Virginia historian, Philip Alexander Bruce, expressed this
sentiment with these words:
was this love of home, with its thronging recollections of the past
both near and far . . . that nerved many a Southern soldier. . .
. Love of the South was inextricably mixed up with this love of
the family hearth. . . . Love of one particular spot, of one neighborhood,
of one State, was the foundation stone of the love of the entire
region which entered so deeply into the spirit of the Confederate
Lees were "Virginians of Virginians." How could he raise
his sword against his native sod and against his own kin? Mary Lee
would later write of her husband’s contest with self that historic
night: "My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible
war." Finally, after midnight, a spiritually drained Lee solemnly
descended the stairs to the sitting room where Mary had waited and
said, "Well Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter
of resignation and a letter I have written General Scott."
I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission
as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry.
Your obedient servant,
the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, it was "the decision
Lee was born to make." The travail of prayer had rendered
its fruit. Lee would cast his lot with Virginia, in full measure
– there was no other thing he could do. Though he opposed secession
and had termed it "revolution," he also would state, "A
union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets…has no
charm for me." Even after the war, as the South lay in ruin,
Lee would affirm the rightness of his decision:
did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course
without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should
act in precisely the same manner."
readers of this website likely need no further explanation of the
consequences of Lee’s decision. His glorious victories against overwhelming
odds have inspired volumes. Though the South ultimately lost, the
Confederacy’s greatest general is as much recognizable as any in
history, and more admired than any officer the North can claim.
Lee became an unwilling Christ figure for Southerners – Greater
love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his
friends. John 15:13.
would cringe at such an analogy and certainly no sacrilege is intended.
Yet the comparison is undeniable and, if one believes the Bible
and our command to be Christ-like, wholly appropriate. God knows
we need some Christ-likeness to emulate in our day.
what of Lee’s progenitor, Robert the Bruce? Bruce was so sickened
by his own traitorous conduct that he rose from the table, went
immediately to a nearby chapel and fell upon the altar. There he
wept bitter tears of repentance, praying for forgiveness and vowing
to God to never again raise his hand against Scotland. Robert the
Bruce kept his vow, ultimately freeing Scotland from the English
yoke and became King of Scotland. Thus, Bruce had achieved the dreams
of William Wallace.
their paths and outcomes were different, both Robert E. Lee and
Robert the Bruce are revered in their homelands today. Both men,
through the intervention of Divine supplication, chose the path
of honor and sacrifice and altered the course of history. Both died
heroes bound by ancestry and by Providence. Perhaps it was Providence
speaking and reminding humanity of these two warriors’ ties as Robert
E. Lee met the final enemy.
Lee lay dying in Lexington, Virginia, the stormy October sky flashed
with an unusual light for several nights in a row. According to
Douglas Southall Freeman, "some saw in it a beckoning hand"
and a Lexington woman took from a bookshelf a copy of The Lays
of the Scottish Cavaliers and pointed with eerie assurance to
the following verse:
night long the northern streamers
across the trembling sky:
lights, that never beckon
when kings or heroes die."
dead, both men serve as examples of what true patriotism is. Both
men’s lives point, as did William Wallace’s decaying hand, to what
most moderns don’t understand – God-inspired love of native-sod.
Williams, Jr. [send him mail],
is proprietor of Virginia
Gentleman Books and a descendant of Robert the Bruce. He has
also compiled and edited a book of quotes and anecdotes from the
life of Robert E. Lee with a foreword by Harry W. Crocker – The
Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen will be released
in November. (The book is available on
my website and will be available on Amazon.com.)
2002 by Richard G. Williams, Jr.